Friday, April 15, 2011

The beginnings of love

Whether we consider ourselves religious or not, spiritual or not, adhering to a certain faith or not - regardless of where we come from - I'd bet that that most of us have heard this phrase, or some version of it: Love your neighbor as yourself. These are Jesus' words, actually, from one of his many talks to the crowds of people who gathered during his ministry to hear his profound teaching. I've heard these words taught since my early Sunday school days.

What I couldn't have grasped as a young child, when this principle was first introduced to me, was where the ultimate challenge is embedded in those words. I was always taught to focus on loving others - a good focus to have, and one I still need more of. I don't recall ever being taught, however, what loving myself actually means. In fact, though all of us struggle with self-centeredness (those who call themselves followers of Christ and those who do not), in the Church it has seemed almost taboo to talk about love of self. And I can understand why; it's rampant in our society, like an untamed animal roaming about with access to whatever it pleases. But still, it's there, included in Jesus' words. We are not to love others as we love our dogs, or love others as we love our possessions, or love others as we love our passions and causes and careers. Our measure for loving others is as we love ourselves.

This is a hard pill to swallow. For as I struggle with self-centeredness and self-indulgence on one end of the spectrum, I also struggle with self-flagellation on the other. I am severely critical with myself. I really need no enemies, for I can be set against myself as a most formidable foe. It is true, I can "love" myself too much (though it is not really love to indulge myself), but I can also love myself far too little. With such harshness, judgment and lack of grace.

Of course, this in itself is a problem. But the greater problem lies in the consequence that, if I am unable to show true love and grace to myself, I will be incapable of showing it to my neighbor.

All I have to do is think of all the ways I have "failed" to live up to my own standards and expectations over the past few years alone, how I have taken a metaphorical baseball bat to my heart and beat it time and time again. I think of how harsh I have become with myself over time and circumstances since my Dad's death. And it becomes more clear to me, why I can, in turn, struggle with being more harsh with others, more critical and judgmental, more sharp-tongued. Even as I write this, it sounds so... extreme, so serious. Perhaps I am not really as bad as it sounds, I reason. But as with everyone else, I know my soul's struggles. I know what I try so hard to conceal. There is beauty in my heart, but there is also darkness that I wrestle with. I am far from perfect, particularly in my love. I know this well.

So my challenge is this: in what ways can I begin to show myself love, the kind of love I would wish to show others, the kind I would wish to receive from others? Jesus knew he was striking to the core of the heart when he pointed us to begin with ourselves. Not in a self-serving way, but in a way that opens up our hearts to love others.

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